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Leaders: Recognize the brutal facts of reality and own your mistakes

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on August 15, 2016

Many of us have worked in or been affected by organizations in which leaders ignore the brutal facts of reality. When reality finally catches up with them, any credibility they once had is damaged, along with the trust and confidence of those who rely on their judgment.

A recent example is the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

On Jan. 23, I wrote an article in the Philadelphia Business Journal headlined “The Flint Water Crisis: A failure in leadership,” describing the government’s continued indifference and inaction in addressing complaints by the citizens of Flint, about the quality of their tap water after the city’s water source was changed to the Flint River.

The water from the Flint River is very corrosive, causing lead and other heavy metals to leach out of the aging pipes delivering water to homes. It is estimated that as many as 12,000 residents of Flint now have elevated levels of lead in their bodies. Many of these are children who may suffer developmental issues and a range of other health problems.

The failure of government and regulatory authorities not to require the addition of the anti-corrosion agent was a gross failure in stewardship and responsibility, which could lead to criminal charges and civil liability. There is a lot of finger-pointing within the government and the EPA, with enough blame to go around. Some of those individuals responsible have been forced to resign.

Many Flint residents complained about the color and odor of the water coming out of the faucets in their homes. What did government officials do? They continually told the citizens of Flint that the water used in their homes was safe.

They ignored the brutal facts of reality. If these government and environmental officials experienced the same type of water coming from the faucets in their own homes, corrective action would have been demanded and immediately implemented.

In a July 2015 email, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote, “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state, we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

One wonders how many lower-level government employees wanted to address the Flint water issue as soon as it was known, but the culture within Gov. Snyder’s administration would not permit them to do so.

Within our own organizations, we rarely will encounter situations with the gravity of the Flint Water crisis. However, we all know of adverse situations that are not promptly addressed for a variety of reasons.

Perhaps a leader within your company becomes wedded to a strategy because she doesn’t want to admit responsibility for the adverse result. This forces her direct reports to support that strategy, which damages their own credibility within the organization.

When you don’t face the brutal facts of reality, problems can’t be fixed. Others within the organization roll their eyes in disbelief. Eventually, the brutal facts of reality must be faced. Do so early and maintain your credibility within your organization. If you make a mistake, don’t blame others, which destroys trust and respect. Acknowledge responsibility and share how you will make changes going forward.

This is a true measure of an effective leader.

Stan Silverman is the former president and CEO of PQ Corp. He also is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and is vice chairman of the board of trustees of Drexel University. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

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